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Inside Knowledge: how is oak used in winemaking?

How is oak used in winemaking?

In Short:
Winemakers have used oak barrels since Roman times. Ageing in these vessels can have many desirable benefits, such as flavours and aromas of vanilla, cedar and sweet spices.

Why is oak used?

Oak barrels have been the wine-storing vessel of choice for centuries. During the Romans’ advance into Europe, they discovered the oak barrels used by the Gauls were a much better alternative to the heavy clay amphorae they had historically used to transport their wines.

Centuries later, winemakers made the fortunate discovery that wine stored in oak barrels had actually become much more tasty. Over time, the oak ageing softened the wine and imparted complementary flavours. Many famous wines have developed their hallmark styles due to the use of oak barrels by the winemaker.


How does oak ageing affect wine?

Oak adds flavours and aromas and changes the texture of wine over time. As well as the natural flavour compounds found in the wood, flavours and aromas also come from the charring process used in oak-barrel production.

Oak barrels are a perfect vessel for ageing wines as they are waterproof, but not oxygen-proof. Thanks to their tight grain, they allow the very gentle transfer of oxygen into the wine, letting it mature at the perfect rate.

Over time, the natural wood tannins also integrate into the wine, improving its structure to give it more longevity.


What choices do the winemakers have?

Winemakers may opt for lightly toasted barrels to add woody flavours and tannin or go for more heavily charred oak barrels if they want to release more intense flavours. They may choose to keep the wine in oak barrels from just a few months to several years, depending on the desired style.

The size and age of the barrel is another important consideration. Small oak barrels impart more flavour than large barrels as the ratio of wood to wine is higher. Flavour compounds in older oak barrels decrease over time compared to new oak barrels and need to be replaced after a few uses.


What flavours come from oak barrels?

As well as the smoke, spice and vanilla notes that come from toasting the barrels, certain types of oak are chosen for their flavours to suit different types of wine.


French oak is famous for its subtle spice, nuttiness, and coffee flavours. It was classically used with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It's often used for small barrels and is known for giving elegant, silky textures.

American oak is known for adding vanilla, coconut, and sweet-spice flavours. It can be more intense in flavour and is often used with bolder wines, like Rioja and Zinfandel.

Slovenian oak is commonly used by Italian winemakers. Larger-format oak barrels are preferred to add texture, rather than strong flavours.

Bourbon oak gives wine strong caramel, brown-sugar, maple and vanilla flavours. The oak barrels are usually heavily charred and add richness and sweetness.

Not all grape varieties suit the influence of oak barrels, so the winemaker will decide if the wine needs the added flavours – and expense – of oak. There are a number of different styles of oaked wine – the best way to learn more about the differences is to explore a variety of wines.

If you want to try some great examples of oaked wines, try these:

Definition Chardonnay, Limoux

Definition Rioja Reserva

Château Grand Faurie La Rose, St-Emilion Grand Cru

1000 Stories' Bourbon Barrel Zinfandel, California